not on the government

We have a responsibility to ensure that whether the Government Digital Service survives its spending review or not, its revolutionary task never stops

Jason Caplin


A confession: I don’t work at GDS. Instead I’m the digital director of a petite government department, UK Trade and Investment, which like all its siblings has a monster job to do in making its services simpler, better, faster and cheaper for everyone who uses them.

And that’s why I know GDS is far from dead: its mantra lives in all of us involved in government transformation.

If this week has shown us anything, it’s that all of government has a responsibility to celebrate the people that are making services brilliant for people, and urge them to keep up the good work.

He was Francis Maude at GDS; now he’s Lord Maude at UKTI (photo credit: ITV)


There’s been a lot of chatter on the tech wires over the past few days about whether GDS will survive Mike Bracken’s departure or not. Some great people – models of how civil servants should be – have moved on, and we will miss them.

But a few brave people have stood up already to say they’ll not be leaving. It’s they that I, as a person who’s only recently joined the fight to revolutionise the Government on behalf of the people, want to cheer on the loudest.

…upwards and outwards too

Government digital transformation goes far wider than the ‘government as a platform’ model being debated this month. Yes, there are dozens of services yet to be transitioned. But more importantly, there are dozens of services that don’t even exist yet, and won’t without the digital nous, vision, inclusivity and process which has been Aviation House’s greatest achievement so far.

“It doesn’t even exist yet” is where the UK needs the digital phoenix to rise. GDS set the [service] standard: a bar far higher than any department could have achieved on its own. But departmental digital teams have always slightly begrudged GDS, for not knowing quite as much as they did about their particular issues — a lot like departments in general sometimes feel about Cabinet Office, local government feels about Whitehall, or any team anywhere in the country feels about Corporate HQ.

So this is our phoenix moment. GDS doesn’t just need to sit inside one building. We have the responsibility to work not on the Government, but of the Government. We should stop expecting all the knowledge to reside in the centre (and begrudge, as above, when it doesn’t). We in departments should all take responsibility for ensuring the standards and speeds that GDS set become the status quo. We should police ourselves against these expectations even better than GDS does.

Thank you, fabulous @louisedowne. 63 retweets and counting.

All the work that GDS was doing yesterday still needs to happen today. Departments know this, and we have money and supportive leadership to achieve the change that everyone knows the Civil Service needs to achieve. That means taking up responsibility for projects GDS has been asked to drop: elements of the civil service tools; sourcing excellent digital leaders; making data open and welcoming insight; forming international partnerships for the benefit of all involved. We’ve committed to this already at UKTI, and I know others across Whitehall are doing the same.

UKTI isn’t GDS. But focusing on users, iterating rapidly and shattering costs courses through our entire plan for transformation. Considering how alien those concepts were to Whitehall only 5 years ago, that’s nothing short of radical. And that’s all down to GDS.


So I propose two things. I invite GDS staff, as well as digital civil servants across central and local Government, and our friends in the tech world beyond, to voice support for them with an #OfTheGovernment tweet this week. They are:

1. To make a commitment to remember why we got into this in the first place.

To build the services which will support people’s lives and livelihoods far better than Government can today. To not relentlessly chase the best day-rate offer we could in spite of the subject matter. To continue — and amplify — our work by sitting in departments as well as at Aviation House.

To take our next role within Government, or as close as we can get.

2. To announce when you, as a government revolutionary, are ready to move on to your next in-government contract.

I don’t think it is unethical — though I am happy to be shot down — to do this in the open. We in government departments are desperate for your skills, and often find out by word of mouth alone.

Let’s stop this being an insiders’ club: if someone wants to start the MVP Google sheet where we post when our contracts are ending, and where to find details of our skills and experiences (eg LinkedIn) then do it. As a senior civil servant I will be only too pleased to endorse it from here, from Twitter, and from a gov.uk blog.

Let’s not let the revolution fizzle just because we’ve suffered one casualty. Let’s make sure we blow the bloody doors off.

Disclaimer: this blog post would have appeared on our new, shiny, official UKTI digital blog (digitaltrade.blog.gov.uk) but it’s not yet set up. I’ll repost it there when it’s up and running.

Header photo credit: Ben Terrett